vrkobold's The Outer Worlds (Digital) (PC) review

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A concise, engaging RPG that serves as a palatable reform, not a thorough revolution.

The Outer Worlds was my first successful foray into the world of open-world RPGs. Usually, they are simply too much game for me, and I tend to drop off once I tire of the gameplay. But when I learned that The Outer Worlds would exist at a smaller scale, I decided to climb aboard -- though I'd be lying if I said the price didn't help usher me onto the ship.

I'm glad I gave it a shot. The Outer Worlds is a game full of interesting characters, intriguing environments, and solid dialogue. From start to finish, I was primarily and forcefully propelled by my desire to explore the cities, ships, and outposts of the Outer Worlds, talk to and learn about their inhabitants, and see how they would act and react with me and with each other. I agonized over which of my crew to bring with me while I was out and about, because I wanted to know how they felt about other characters and what they thought of me. When confronted with big decisions, despite my efforts to puzzle them out, I was often surprised by the eventual consequences of my actions.

The gameplay, however, didn't interest me as much. Do note that I played on Normal, so I didn't face much in the way of challenge, but the core loop of stumbling upon a new combat arena and plunking away at enemies (or rushing them head-on) got stale quickly. Managing my inventory was a chore, as I picked up a great many items that -- while fun to look at and read about -- never mattered much. I had my battle armor, my tech clothes, my speech clothes... and a ton of other equipment that I would lose them in, as I couldn't find a good way to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Similarly, the skill and perk systems felt more like work than a necessary way to differentiate my character. I could see these systems mattering in a more specialized playthrough, even though I'd still be drowned in a deluge of unappetizing consumables.

I feel that broad volume of items is emblematic of the promotion of breadth over depth in The Outer Worlds. It was natural that a game in the vein of a Fallout would choose to either go wide or go deep if it needed to be concise. This isn't a firmly bad or good decision; it works to the game's detriment sometimes, but works in its favor as well. You meet many characters, hear many stories, pick up many items, and fire many bullets, and while some of those are forgettable or shallow or extraneous, you are never wanting for intrigue, never far away from the next exciting or funny conversation.

Where I feel most turbulent on this tension between breadth and depth is in how The Outer Worlds communicates its ideas, themes, and positions. It touches on and talks about many topics that are important and timely in our real world -- class struggle, workers' rights, environmentalism, reformism, anarchism, colonialism, bad-jacketing and co-option -- but doesn't explicitly say much about any of them.

I think it's good because it provides a jumping-on point for people who are new to these themes. I think it's bad because I want to better understand where it stands on them. I think it's good because it pushes the discourse towards further examination of these topics. I think it's bad because it leaves out many crucial complicating factors of these themes. I think it's at its best when these ideas are juxtaposed and compared, and at its worst when they are simply mentioned in passing, in isolation. I think the most powerful writing can be in the words left unwritten, but the most comfortable writing is that which is explicitly stated.

But mostly, I think this turbulence was the inevitable result of fitting this type of game into 30 hours, rather than 300. I met a lot of cool characters and saw a lot of neat areas, but the lack of depth meant that I didn't always get to see everything that I wanted to see... but if that depth had been offered to me, I don't think I would have had the time to comb through it all. Such is the nature of contradiction.

TL;DR: The Outer Worlds tells many stories that, while terse, are interesting and have real-world relevance. It looks and sounds great, and the gameplay, while unremarkable, doesn't get in the way too much. It doesn't ask for weeks of your life, but it does ask that you draw your own conclusions about its events. Worth buying at full price, and if you have Game Pass you should try it out, even if it's not your kind of game.

Other reviews for The Outer Worlds (Digital) (PC)

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